“Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peacekeeping.”
— Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, 1542–1616
Packs of chattering monkeys stand between you and the entrance to this distinctive shrine complex in the mountains of northern Japan. Avoiding the creatures as best you can, pick your way through the woodland up the final stairs, and you will find yourself face to face with the remarkable Rinno-ji temple, founded in 766. Its large hall is full of treasures from Edo-period Japan, and there is a beautiful nineteenth century landscaped garden outside.
The stunningly beautiful Nikko Historic Areas, with its well-protected historic buildings, was named fourth best in National Geographic’s 2008 “Places Rated” Destination Stewardship survey.
Venture farther into the shrine complex and you will find that the temples become more and more magnificent, with lines of ornate stone lanterns, tombs, treasure towers, and statues showing antique samurai baring their teeth and ferociously flashing their eyes at visitors. The Taiyuin-byo Shrine, which houses the ashes of shogun Tokugawa lemitsu (1603–1605), is especially superb. It sits at the top of a series of decorative red and golden gates, in grove of Japanese cedars.
There is something about the geographic isolation of Nikko, a village set high in the mountains, that makes this multiplex feel very different from other shrines and temples you may see anywhere else in Japan. The Shinto belief in Kami, the existence of a spiritual being or genius of a particular place, seems remarkably moving here in the silence of the forests, and the sensation that something enchanting lurks nearby is not easily shaken off.
Close by, the historic, vermillion Shinkyo Bridge and Nikko Botanical Gardens are also very picturesque, as is Ganmna-ga-fuchi, a scenic river that runs a pastel, mineral blue through the old lava flows of nearby Mount Nantai and has a statue-lined footpath. The beautiful vermilion arch of Shinkyo Bridge is the classiest image of Nikko. The current structure of the sacred bridge was built in 1636 and went through major renovation in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, there has been a bridge on the site right through recorded history. Originally, it was only open to the highest levels of aristocracy; but after the restoration, it has been open for the general public to cross. And the five-story pagoda is one of a striking selection to be found in the shrine complex at Nikko.